Chicago Ideas Week: Create historic “you are beautiful” art with Matthew Hoffman


Author’s Note: Below is a reprint of the article I did in October 2015 when Chicago Ideas offered me a press pass to attend events, and I covered three including one by Matthew Hoffman, the “you are beautiful” guy. This year, he is doing another CIW event – and this time, you can join him in creating a mural and be part of this uplifting world movement!


This past week, Chicago Ideas Week brought to us artist-in-residence Matthew Hoffman to talk about his art. You’ve likely seen his art around town or elsewhere, and you may be familiar with his “you are beautiful” initiative.

An initial impression of Matthew is that he’s mellow though friendly and not the least bit pretentious despite his fame. He has a rather quiet — even serious — demeanor. (Perhaps he was thinking of what he would do next to uplift this troubled world.) The first thing Matthew wanted to relay about himself were his three motivations for doing his art:

o       To stimulate conversation
o       To deliver positive messages
o       That it’s important to put yourself out there in the world

Matthew shared that as a youngster he enjoyed tinkering and making things. Eventually he got his degree in graphic arts. He moved to Chicago in 2002 and worked at a PR firm for many years until he was part of a big layoff. Losing one’s job can be devastating, but he decided “it’s all good” and started tinkering again.

He focused on outdoor placement of art where anyone can see it. He’s never been in trouble with the law though he admits he has probably “taken liberties.” He says writing on things you’re not supposed to isn’t necessarily considered right, but people are going to do it anyhow so why not post positive messages.

3-Crowd SceneIn 2003, he opened a P.O. Box so people could order stickers. Now they’re available online. In fact, now there are over 2 million stickers in 81 languages on all 7 continents, making it a global movement. He’s been doing this for 13 years, and what he does is spread mainly by word-of-mouth. He is able to support himself by his art and in fact employs one person and is about to hire another.

His very first “you are beautiful’ installation was comprised of refrigerator magnets and didn’t even have all the letters. But it garnered positive attention none-the-less. His next “you are beautiful” installation quickly disappeared. Someone eventually emailed him to admit they had it on their living room wall and they wouldn’t give it back. He learned from that and started making the letters bigger; they’re now 8’ x 8’.

Although he started small, now he does large projects that are requisitioned. Planning starts months ahead. The letters are laser cut; the work is very intensive, most projects involving thousands of pieces. The projects are done by Matthew, sometimes in concert with other artists. But you will also see ‘you are beautiful” done by others. When people started emulating him, he kept an open mind about it. His famous sayings are not copyrighted; they’re “for the community,” and there are now “you are beautiful” installations all over the world.

One Sunday morning, he did a fence piece with Styrofoam cups between his apartment and his studio, where he could see it as he rode his bike back and forth. Someone changed the word ‘beautiful’ to ‘bad.’ His piece changed continually. He noted someone even added more cups. The message changed from positive to negative and back to positive, every other time, till it eventually disappeared.

In an underpass, he did a large “you are beautiful” on which people added tags. To cover those up, the city repainted it a drab beige. Next, someone painted it bright orange. To this day, people are still helping to preserve it.

In 2004, some folks in San Francisco used party streamers and spelled out “you are beautiful” on an overpass, which made the front page of the local newspaper. A girl in grade school slipped “you are beautiful” messages into everyone’s lockers before school. The message is also being shared at senior centers. At one point, an art gallery did a “you are beautiful” showing.

Some of Matthew’s other famous sayings from which he creates artwork are “love” and “nice to be important to be nice.” When he did his premiere “everyone makes mistakes” piece, he describes it as “a massive mistake” which turned out to be two times too big and unable to stand on its own.

2-Anything is PossibleIt’s not unusual for folks to help him spread the word: One early Sunday morning, several of his friends hiked around the city with letters that read “anything is possible.” He did a “go for it” for the historic Pullman district in Chicago where people from the community assisted; he likened it to a “barn raising.” It was done in a large facility, and cohorts walked two blocks on foot carrying big pieces to the installation site. It was meant to be temporary, but it’s still there.

What’s next for Matthew? He says he and his team will go all over the city. Plans include installations in Englewood, Roscoe Village, Lawndale. He agreed with someone who said it would be a good idea to share his positive messages in high-crime areas. “You are beautiful” is a beautiful idea spreading out and making the world a more beautiful place. Thank you, Matthew.

And thanks to Chicago Ideas and its sponsors for inviting Matthew Hoffman to share his stories along with an eye-popping slideshow presentation. During one exciting don’t-miss-it week every autumn, Chicago Ideas presents all kinds of fascinating speakers and hands-on events. Plan on it every year. The surest way of doing this is to become a member.

And always know this: You are beautiful!



Back to School with Chicago Ideas Week

I don’t know about you, but every autumn, a nostalgic back-to-school feeling takes hold of me. We’ve been trained most of our lives that fall is the time to return to our studies. The pain of leaving summer behind is modified for me by a driving desire to learn and get-things-done attitude that infuses me and adds a different dimension and even deeper meaning to life. I’m guessing we all feel this to varying degrees.

A change so drastic as warm weather turning chilly and darkness replacing light feels like a different world and calls for a change in attitude and lifestyle. It’s time to dress for the weather, donning fall fashions, and seek out something new to do. Don’t simply settle for a seasons-long period of hibernation, because that will soon pale after a scintillating summertime of outdoor enjoyment and will quickly grow old way before the really cold weather hits. Make October count and enrich your life with something different: Chicago Ideas Week!

Chicago Ideas Week starts October 16 and runs through October 26. In case you think Chicago Ideas Week is just sitting in an auditorium listening to speakers, yes, there is some of that — but there’s so much more including hands-on activities that you may not have ever done or ever thought you’d get the chance to try. See the list below, complete with links leading right to the Chicago Ideas Week site to learn more about these opportunities and sign up.

The presentations sometimes featuring one speaker, but more often, there’s a panel of experts. Lectures are sometimes interactive, followed by Q&A time, and some host post-talk networking opportunities.

Here’s just a smattering of the wide variety of what awaits you during Chicago Ideas Week:


Political, successful entrepreneur, modern love (and friendship), Chicago activism, race topics, what’s it all about, protecting yourself from hackers, probing the unknown, the economy (of China).


See the Blue Man Group without their makeup; interact with them and they’ll teach you a few of their famous tricks.

A photographer will show you how to take phenomenal pictures from high places (meets atop the John Hancock Center).

Smart dating for the 21st century.

Heal with yoga.

Build a bike.

Cook up something at the Chopping Block.

If you’re a composer, learn how to make money on your songs.

Create a mural side by side with Matthew Hoffman, the guy who started “You are Beautiful.”

Doodling for improved note taking; hands-on learning.

Be a DJ; create content for on-air use; record a commercial that will be read on air and get feecdback from DJs.


Tour the new Wintrust arena, watch the Blue Demons practice and try your skills on the court.

Something novel for city slickers: Visit a farm and harvest some food, learn about using food as medicine and create a raw meal from food you’ve picked.

Shedd Aquarium: Learn about the special waters these creatures live in.

Field Museum: A behind-the-scenes look at the “Specimens” exhibit.

Argonne National Laboratory: Learn all about a new, ecologically useful innovation.

CIW sidewalk sign-cropt

With Chicago Ideas Week about a week out, get busy accessing those links so you can be a part of it all. Tickets go fast; fortunately, some new events are being added, but jump on this.

Events are reasonably priced: Most tickets are $15. Some sessions are sold out, some are for members only, but several fun and fascinating experiences remain available to anyone, thanks to Chicago Ideas Week’s members, partners and sponsors. Do consider becoming a member – The Curiosity Level is reasonably priced, and then you’ll get discounts on tickets, be privy to members-only events and enjoy other benefits.

You may notice that some of the events are during normal business hours. If feasible, consider requesting a long lunch break or taking a half day off. Not only is it stimulating and refreshing to break away from mundane existence, at Chicago Ideas Week, there’s also the opportunity to expand your mind and try new things: Make this your most interesting October ever!

Autumn in Chicago: Splendid season for an architectural riverboat tour

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Once summer has slipped into fall and all the excitement of free outdoor music and other festivals are over, Chicagoans are left with the question: What will I do with myself now? I’d like to suggest a Chicago River cruise paired with a meal, possibly outdoors, because this is still a lovely time of year and often very temperate.

You can catch a Chicago riverboat right at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive which is also a hot spot with lots of shopping and great places to eat just steps away. Your indoor or outdoor dining can be accompanied by gorgeous river and city views.

Even if you’re a native Chicagoan, these educational riverboat cruises are highly recommended. New buildings are erected and old ones are renovated, making for fascinating new facts. Any true lover of Chicago will enjoy one of these tours. Plus it’s a great way to show off our dazzling city to out-of-town guests.


Chicago’s First Lady (operated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation)

Mercury Cruiseline


There are many, including fast food places too numerous to mention. There are also several seasonal spots right on the Chicago Riverwalk. Aside from those, here’s a varied selection of regular restaurants, depending what you’re in the mood for:

Billy Goat Tavern (the original)
(Below street level, just under Michigan Avenue and right off Wacker Drive)
Billy Goat Tavern offers consistently delicious burgers and fast service served right along with fascinating tidbits of Chicago history, mostly in relation to the Cubs baseball team. Obviously this place is famous (thanks to an unforgettable “Saturday Night Live” skit) and this coupled with a burgeoning lunch crowd can make it challenging to secure seats during the lunch hour. If you go with others, one of you should scout for and save a table for the rest.

Chuck’s or Mr. Brown’s Lounge (both in the Hard Rock Hotel)
(230 North Michigan, one block south of Wacker)
Chuck’s is very elegant, while Mr. Brown’s Lounge is very casual. Take your pick.

Dick’s Last Resort
(Marina Towers, State & Wacker)
Not a fancy joint, but their crab legs are oh-so-yummy. That’s their specialty, but there is a large menu from which to choose – and they are right on the Chicago River!

Emerald Loop
(Corner of Wabash & Wacker, one block west of Michigan)
This is a big, hopping fast-paced place with a huge menu and quality food.

Great Street Restaurant or Raised (both at the Renaissance Hotel)
(Corner of State & Wacker, two blocks west of Michigan)
Great Street has fine food, a huge bar and with exceptional river and city views. Raised, which refers to itself as “an urban rooftop bar” but also serves food, is extremely popular: It’s perched outside with an exciting view.

Hoyt’s (in Hotel 71)
(71 East Wacker, 1/2 block from Michigan)
Big and open and right on the river with spectacular river views. They have some fun drinks.

Morton’s The Steakhouse
(On Wacker just east of Michigan)
This is one of the premiere places for good steak and seafood as well.

Sixteen (in Trump Tower)
(One block northwest of Wacker & Michigan)
This restaurant is super elegant with prices to match. It has great food and service plus an awesome view, looking right out at the clock tower of the Wrigley Building.

Smith & Wollensky
(318 North State, State & Wacker)
This is not the first time I’ve written and recommended this restaurant: It’s a classy dining spot with excellent food and top notch service. Right on the river with choice of indoors or outdoor patio seating and two levels, this popular spot draws a crowd. The upper level is bustling; the lower level, a bit slower-paced.

Sweetwater Tavern & Grille
(225 North Michigan, one block south of Wacker)
They have a huge outdoor patio, part of which is even shielded from rain. The servers are quick and sharp and courteous, and the restaurant lavishes generous portions of tasty food and drink.

The Purple Pig
(500 North Michigan)
Execs and their clients dine here frequently. Also, the outdoor patio makes for great people watching along the Mag Mile. The menu is eclectic, though as the name implies, they specialize in meats, especially pork.


Whether you live in Chicago or decide to visit, enjoy a day along the Chicago River while temperate weather lasts!

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Let’s bicycle Chicago


When you think of Chicago, you may think of its architecture and art, politics, crime, businesses, shopping, entertainment, beaches, even gangs or gangsters — I’ll bet bicycling isn’t one of the first things about Chicago that pops into your head. But all that changed a few years back and you may be surprised at just how many bicycles are suddenly traversing the streets of Chicago — everywhere you turn, from the lakefront to the parks to the heavily-trafficked Loop.

ART-CoverThere have been popular cycling events in Chicago for years. But bicycling in Chicago really blossomed when Mayor Emanuel added bike lanes cutting through one of the busiest streets in downtown, Dearborn, much to the lament of the locals who were used to hopping a bus from Printer’s Row and making it to the office in 10 minutes flat or hailing a cab by Congress Parkway and Dearborn and shooting down Dearborn to make it to work in a jiffy. Those days are gone. To accommodate bike lanes down such a busy street, the parking lane was moved inward and serves as a border between traffic and the bikers, and although this provides better safety for bikers, it brought rush hour traffic up downtown Dearborn to an exasperating crawl.

Mayor Emanuel decided he wanted to make Chicago the most bike-friendly city in the nation, emulating Copenhagen; and in 2012, he set that in motion with the Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020. We were at #10 when this article was written; now we are probably higher on the list. When Dearborn Street was converted to accommodate this plan, commuters and cabbies alike complained bitterly, especially since the bike lanes were carved out of a street that was a vital vein across the Loop–and in the winter when there was barely a biker in sight and, the whole idea seemed ludicrous. Also, sitting at a light waiting to turn left seems to take forever now and is a true practice in art of patience, especially if one is in a hurry. But time moves on and people have adapted and now Dearborn Street’s bike lane is thriving!

ART-securedownload (2)Still tricky, though, is remembering to look both ways when crossing Dearborn on foot — a one-way street for motor vehicles but newly a two-way thoroughfare for cyclists — when previously one never had to give it a second thought. Cyclists are to adhere to Chicago bike laws for everyone’s safety. Dearborn Street is now known as a “complete street,” mimicking those in the Netherlands, which is reputed to be “the most bike friendly nation in the world.” A complete street includes bicycle lanes and proper signage and signals, including stop and go lights for bicyclists as well as motorists and pedestrians. Many more complete streets have since been created in downtown Chicago and the surrounding area.

Cycling in Chicago really seemed to come into full bloom at the advent of two happenings: the summer of 2013 and Divvy bikes, brought to us by the Chicago Department of Transportation. Bicycle rental stations have and continue to pop up everywhere, and people are using them. Often whole Divvy docking stations are empty because they are so popular. When one sees several cyclists, at least one of them is sure to be on a Divvy bike.

ART-securedownload (6)It used to be just bicycle messengers zipping through downtown. Now it’s also guys in suits and ladies in dresses. Another recent trend: Whereas for years there appeared to be just one strong, young rickshaw guy offering rides in his bicycle buggy in downtown Chicago, now there are numerous. What a great way to sightsee Chicago! And speaking of sightseeing, what better way to do it than on a bike along Lake Michigan or through the countless gorgeous parks in Chicago.

Although it is still taking some getting used to as more busy thoroughfares are transformed into complete streets, it is exciting that Chicago has become such a bike-friendly city and is set to become even more so through the next several years as the mayor continues to create more bike routes throughout the city.

ART-securedownload (160)Hopefully more bike-friendly paths will also be laid throughout the park system. For example, crossing Lake Shore Drive to Buckingham Fountain, there is no bicycle-friendly way to ascend to the fountain. One has to either get off and attempt to walk a bike up steps or a steep grassy hill or ride around the long way to eventually access the fountain area.

Because there are so many more bikers, there are also more bicycle stands at which to lock up bikes. The Chicago Bike Program, brought to you by the City of Chicago, is happy to add more and point the way to those currently in existence.

ART-securedownload (140)But there are also more bicycle accidents. Motorists, watch for cyclists! Pedestrians, you too! And cyclists, please bike safely! And then there’s always the annual Naked Bike Ride – put that on your bucket list to see or maybe even join — which in part strives to bring to public attention how very vulnerable cyclists are, especially in the city, as well as promote alternate-energy-friendly means of transportation, namely, the good old bicycle.

Alert: The World Music Fest is in Chicago!

Every year as summer turns into fall, something wonderful happens in Chicago: The World Music Festival! It  kicked off last night, September 8, at SummerDance with an amazing, high-energy band, Underground System — a band from Brooklyn, but their musical style, Afrobeat, hails from Nigeria. The temperatures dipped into the 50’s and there was a pretty strong constant cool wind off the lakefront, yet once this hot band got going, the outdoor dance floor in the Spirit of Music Garden in Grant Park was hopping. I had to strip off my coat to cool off!

20160828_184131Their show was incredible. Never had I seen such wild dancing except in movies. It was exciting: With each song, the drum beat pulled us in, and there was no way to not dance. This band was unique in that the front line was women, dancing in unison while singing, playing flute, drumming and including a tenor saxophonist who could really belt it out – while dancing! She was petite — the sax was almost as big as she — but she played with resounding power. They were backed by more than one drummer plus bass and guitar.

The good news is even if you missed Underground System last night, you can catch them tomorrow, September 10, at Navy Pier. It’s Chicago Music Festival’s Women of the World concert series from 3:00 to 6:00 p.m. Ecos Del Pacifico Afrocolombia and LePercolateur, also featuring female frontwomen, will also be playing. Don’t miss this!

1457086400The World Music Festival lasts over two weeks and is a marathon of music from around the world. Get your calendar handy and click here for the full schedule so you can plan to experience musical acts you would never otherwise get to see. I regret not jumping on this sooner, as last night was an event I’ve wanted to catch: An all-night (yes, you read that right: from 6:30 p.m. till 10:00 a.m. the following day) celebration of Indian music divided between Millennium Park and the Chicago Cultural Center, which are right across the street from each other.

But there’s still time to make it to Millennium Park by 3:00 p.m. today, September 9, to hear the Bharath Symphony, a musical celebration of India and commemorating the 70th Anniversary of India’s Independence — and so many other great acts around the city happening soon. One would need a clone to be present at them all at once, so choose wisely, and hopefully what you miss this year you can catch next year.

For example, while there’s Duo Scofano-Minetti, an Argentine group, playing at SummerDance tonight (including Tango lessons), there are two other World Music Fest events happening tonight as well at distant parts of the city. Concerts happen almost daily — some are indoors, some are outdoors; some are all ages, some are 21+ only — so take your vitamins and get your sleep to maintain your stamina so you can see and hear as much as possible.

Mexican Independence Day also happens during the Festival (on September 16); so after the parade, music of Mexico will be featured in the evening.

The World Music Festival is a delightful dive into world culture. It includes not just music but dance lessons and performances; yoga and gong meditation; a movie that’s a Saharan Desert style homage to Prince’s “Purple Rain” and a global peace procession and picnic in Humboldt Park.

To really make these next two weeks special, consider pairing up your musical experiences with visits to many of the restaurants around Chicago that serve exquisite ethnic food. Immerse yourself in the world, right here in Chicago!


Food trucks add zest to meal options

Food trucks at Adams and Wacker

Though temperatures have dipped a bit in Chicago, officially it’s still summer and a great time to be outdoors. The sun is setting notably sooner, and mornings and nights are chillier. It feels like autumn is on its way: It’s light jacket weather. Yet weather predictions throughout September this year look to be very hospitable (mostly in the low 70’s), so “get it while you can.”

Most of us can’t spend nice days in Chicago’s many parks or at the fabulous beaches. Employment in the Chicago Loop usually involves working in towering office buildings that don’t even have windows that open and are generally overly air-conditioned. But one way to get the most out of summer while it’s still with us — while at the same time getting some exercise and some Vitamin D from the sun — is to take a walk during lunch hour.

Willis Tower

If you work in downtown Chicago, consider strolling the impressive Wacker Drive corridor, the land of tall, modern buildings, and stopping to grab lunch at one of the many food trucks parked in the shadow of famous giant Willis Tower. The corner of Wacker and Adams is vibrant and alive with various food truck vendors.

Food trucks are all over the place around Chicago. Click here to find the type of food you’d like and to ascertain its location. There are even food truck fests once a week at Daley Plaza. Expand your world; try them all!

Come winter, it will be tempting to sequester ourselves indoors again to stay warm, and we will experience a return to limited options — namely the same old indoor eateries and fast food places with which we may be quite bored. But now, while it’s still summertime and the weather is pleasant, there’s no reason not to visit many of the interesting food trucks for something different.

Also of note: Food trucks are small businesses — and what could be more gratifying than supporting local vendors. It’s not easy being a food truck owner/operator. The laws are stringent. Food trucks became legitimized not that long ago. Now food carts (smaller and often hand-pushed) are struggling for the same, though the city has considered shutting them down.

Not only do food trucks – and food carts – add variety to our food options, they add a shot of color and character to our city and a great reason to spend your lunch time outdoors.

YES-Use this to promote food truck article2CBS
CBS covers food truck phenomenon

Farmers markets for city folks

PerfectTwice a week right downtown in Chicago’s Loop, the City of Chicago and several sponsors host summer-long farmers markets from 7:00 a.m. till 3:00 p.m. One is on Tuesdays at Federal Plaza (Adams & Dearborn) from May 16 through October 31; the other, Thursdays at Daley Plaza (Washington & Dearborn) May 11 through October 26. Not a downtowner? Check this website for a farmers market near you.

We are continuously being admonished to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables; while the farmers markets are on, there is no excuse not to. And there’s so much more on offer including: baked goods, candy, snack foods, cheese, preserves, honey, herbs, plants, flowers, trinkets by local designers and students, essential oils, personal care products, candles, and lunch to go. For city dwellers, this is often more convenient than a trip to the supermarket.

If you’re an early bird, you’ll get the freshest foodstuffs by shopping on your way to work. Yours truly once negotiated a pint of strawberries at the Federal Plaza from the back of a cab at a red light! But if you go toward the close of the market, you may score better deals, especially if you barter and leave the vendors with less to pack up at day’s end.

It’s probably best to bring cash. Some stands only handle cash, though some also take credit and Link cards. It pays to walk around and comparison shop. A pint of berries for $7 at one stand may be $3 at another. And many sellers offer a discount for buying a combination of their products. In any case, you’ll get a bang for your buck. I discovered recently that $20 bought so much, I could barely carry it home.

Be sure to bring your own large bags, just as if you were shopping for groceries. In fact, be aware that vendors don’t give you their pint boxes; when you buy something that was sitting in a pint box, they generally pour it into a plastic bag to go. These aren’t ideal; I’ve gotten back to the office only to find my berries did not hold up well.

Remember to put your flowers in water and plunge your fresh fruits and veggies into the coolness of the office refrigerator as soon as you get back. If your commute home is lengthy and it’s extremely hot, taking them home in a portable cooler might be wise. In fact, bringing the cooler with you to the farmers markets may be even better.

There are farmers markets all over Chicagoland, but if you happen to work or live downtown, you’re in luck, especially if you go Thursday to Daley Plaza where lunch is served. You can find all the food groups at the farmers market and put together your own healthful lunch, or buy from one of the vendors serving lunch. Various samples are plentiful, so much so that one could make the rounds, do some grazing, and manage to consume a light lunch.

Daley Plaza has plenty of seating for those looking to chow while shopping. Yet seating in the shade, especially during a sweltering hot summer, is like trying to find a parking spot in the city; it’s possible, but you must be alert and quick.

Benches are available, and be prepared to graciously share that bench with someone who may squeeze on next to you. There are also tables with canopies, but I’ve never seen one that wasn’t already occupied, so I imagine you’d have to take an early lunch break or have good timing to get one of those. Others sit around the fountain, soaking in the sun and dabbling their feet. And obviously there’s the option of taking your lunch back to eat in the comfort of your air conditioned workplace.

FountainThe deals get better as the harvest season nears its end. But don’t wait! Although some of the stands at the markets also have shops and perhaps even sell online, many do not. So if you don’t grab and maybe even stock up on these special food items now, you’ll miss your chance to enjoy them until next summer. And as we Chicagoans know, that will be a long, cold wait.